James Harris recalls his quarterbacking roots ... and his NFL dream
The bond between Black College Football Hall of Famers James Harris and Ken Riley began in 1967 at the Orange Blossom Classic. A half a century later, that bond remains strong.
They squared off in Miami's Orange Bowl as opposing quarterbacks in one of the most famous black-college games ever played. They advanced from there into the NFL as players, Harris as a quarterback and Riley as a cornerback. Then Harris went into NFL scouting and personnel and Riley into coaching and administration at his alma mater, Florida A&M.
Harris became the first African-American to open a professional season as a starting quarterback in 1969 with the Buffalo Bills. Then he became the first African-American quarterback to start a playoff game, the first to start a conference championship game, the first selected to a Pro Bowl and the first to win a conference passing title. He played 13 NFL seasons with the Bills, Rams and Chargers.
When Harris became personnel director of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003, he recalled sending scouts to Florida A&M for a pro day, when they bumped into Riley on campus. He intercepted 65 passes during a 15-year career with the Cincinnati Bengals. That places him second among pure cornerbacks in NFL history behind only Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane.
The logical question from the Jacksonville scouts – did Riley ever intercept their boss?
“When scouts come by, he’ll take them to his office and show them this board,” said Harris of a list of quarterbacks Riley intercepted. “He told the guys from Jacksonville, `Let me go back and see if his name is on my board.’ When they told me about it, I called back up there and told him to flip that board over and see how many times I went up top on him.”
Harris and Riley shared the same dream in college, Harris as the quarterback of Grambling and Riley as the quarterback of Florida A&M.
“We both wanted to play quarterback in the NFL,” Harris said. “But we came to a fork in the road. We both were asked to switch. He switched and I didn’t. But lucky for of us we were both able to have good careers in the NFL. Some day we hope to see him selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
We invited Harris to participate in our Talk of Fame Network “5 Games” podcast this week and he revisited the historical path he took in becoming the first African-American quarterback to succeed in the NFL. What Harris did with the Bills – and later the Rams – shattered a stereotype and opened the door for Warren Moon to become a Hall of Famer, Randall Cunningham to become an NFL passing champion and Doug Williams a Super Bowl champion.
Harris and his Tigers brought an 8-1 record into the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic, the traditional black college national title game played annually in the Orange Bowl. Riley and his Rattlers also brought an 8-1 record into the game. Grambling prevailed, 28-25, with Harris the game MVP.
Both were juniors at the time and became eligible for the NFL draft in 1969. Riley was selected in the sixth-round as a cornerback by the Bengals and Harris became an eight-round pick as a quarterback by the Bills. Harris moved up the ladder that summer in training camp from seventh on the depth chart to opening-day starter in his rookie season. They squared off on the field in each of their first two seasons.
“There was a bond,” Harris said. “Every time we played each other we got the chance to talk. It was heartwarming for me because Ken Riley and so many others wanted the chance to play quarterback, too. It always touched me that so many guys were denied an opportunity because they were black. There were many guys that I played against (in college) that were as good as some of the guys I played against in the NFL. It was always unfortunate that they didn’t get the chance that I got.”
Harris and Riley now live an hour apart in Florida. Harris played in Riley’s charity golf tournament this summer. Riley deserved a shot in the NFL as a quarterback as did Sandy Stephens, Jim Kearney, Jimmy Raye, Chuck Ealey, Eldridge Dickey, Cornelius Greene, Condredge Holloway and Tony Dungy – other African-American quarterbacks who had to either change positions in the NFL or go play in Canada.
“I think Ken Riley in today’s game would have made an (NFL) three-deep (at quarterback),” Harris said. “When we got the scouting report about Florida A&M the one thing I remember them saying about Ken Riley – he is dangerous. We cannot let him beat us. Ken Riley was more like a Russell Wilson-type. He was smart, he could throw the ball but he was dangerous if he ever got out of the pocket.”
There figure to be at least six African-American quarterbacks starting in the NFL this season. Football has come a long way since James Harris, Ken Riley and the 1967 Orange Blossom Classic.